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Playing Politics With Little Girls’ Lives

Candidates who bring the HPV vaccine into the political arena are playing with fire.

You and I are just getting to know one another. While I’ve been writing a for Wilton Patch for the last year, and readers there are more familiar with where I stand on many things, this “Patch In” column is only in its third week. I thought we’d take it slow.

Earlier this week someone sent me the link to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. It was about GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann’s recent comments about the human papillomavirus (or HPV) vaccine that she made during the recent campaign debates. My friend thought it would make good fodder for a column, and knew I’d be interested in the subject.

I was a little hesitant to write about it in this forum. Heck, it’s still early in our relationship and you’re just getting to know bits and pieces about where I stand on certain issues and what my life philosophies are. And isn’t this issue really more of a national one, since it’s taking place on the presidential campaign stages rather than right here in Fairfield County?

But then I remembered: We have children here in Fairfield County too.

Because, truly, what’s at the heart of the brouhaha, and what’s getting forgotten in favor of presidential politics and soundbites, are children.

Backtracking a little to explain, Rep. Bachmann has gone on the attack against Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the 2007 move he made in his state issuing an executive order mandating sixth-grade girls receive a vaccine against HPV. Assuming her intent was to characterize Perry’s action as creating legislation without approval from the state’s legislative body, Bachmann fired off this soundbite during the debate:

“To have innocent little 12 year old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.”

After the debate was concluded, she also asserted that HPV vaccines cause “mental retardation.”

I think you and I are going to get to know one another much faster than I first thought.

Political affiliations aside, what’s most concerning to me is how science and health—specifically the health of female children—is now so politicized. Someone has taken a medical issue that’s backed by scientific research and fact, and hijacked it for the purpose of political attack, spin and polling points.

What are the medical facts? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer and genital warts, in addition to being linked to other kinds of cancers and diseases. While there are multiple strains of HPV, and not all of them directly cause cancer, cervical cancer is still the second leading cancer-killer of women worldwide.

HPV is also the most common sexually transmitted disease today.

A-ha! Is that what makes this issue hot and—pardon the media parlance pun—sexy? Because somehow when the topic of “innocent little 12 year old girls” gets mixed up with protecting them from a virus that gets transmitted through sexual contact, it suddenly gets to be co-opted by politicians on the basis of protecting moral values—and it gets them airtime.

In full disclosure, I grew up in a household that was comfortable talking about science, medicine and fact. My dad is an OBGYN, so we weren’t afraid of using correct anatomical terminology or talking about human sexuality. It’s formed the basis for the way I approach issues like this one.

The science shows that in order for this vaccine to work it needs to be administered before a person becomes sexually active. According to a statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics following the media uproar after Bachmann’s comments, they “recommend that girls receive [the] HPV vaccine around age 11 or 12. That’s because this is the age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it’s important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity.”

That recommendation was echoed by the CDC and American Academy of Family Physicians.

Please note, it was me who italicized the statement’s words “well before” to emphasize that science isn’t encouraging little girls to start being sexually active earlier. Knowing that’s been the objection for some opposed to this vaccine, I wanted to make the demarcation between science and morality even clearer.

Let's continue with the facts, especially with regard to Bachmann's baseless assertion about the effects of giving the vaccine, and add what the AAP had to say:

"The American Academy of Pediatrics would like to correct false statements made in the Republican presidential campaign that HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation. There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record."

Legislation concerning vaccines and immunizations is written at the state level. Currently there are no laws on Connecticut books about anything having to do with HPV—at all. Shortly after it was recommended at the federal level in 2006 that girls aged 11 and 12 receive routine vaccinations, several states—including Connecticut—began debate on it. Nothing has passed our legislatures, however, as of 2007, the last year anything on HPV was brought up for discussion. (The CT Department of Health does have a fact sheet on HPV.)

Health and vaccine policy does get set by government, especially when it protects the lives of the public against epidemics—think chicken pox, measles, and many others. There’s usually nothing compulsory and parents have the right to make an ultimate choice to opt out, as was the case in Texas (although Gov. Perry’s executive order was ultimately overturned by his legislature).

It doesn’t need to be an issue that gets divvied up based on political party. Just look at Virginia, where a state mandate for the HPV vaccine was passed with the support of politicians in both parties. Chris Stolle, a Republican state delegate there told the Huffington Post, "I'm a conservative Republican and I certainly do believe in limited government and limited interference of government into our lives. As we look at the function of government, I would put number one as being to protect its citizens. I think that a vaccination program for a disease that's epidemic falls very clearly within the realms of a small limited government."

What is unfortunately lost in this debate is the opportunity for the politicians to use science to enlighten and protect. The resulting costs from such a fatal disease—impacting families, hospitals, insurers, and society—is a potentially too high a price to pay.

Instead, code words and push-button fear messages get bandied about, furthering the campaign at the expense of some of our youngest citizens, playing political roulette with our daughters’ lives.

Faith September 28, 2011 at 12:22 AM
Oral cancers in non- smokers is hugely on the rise in males in the 40+age group. HPV causes most oral cancers in non-smokers. This is not a vaccine just for girls.
JM September 28, 2011 at 08:26 PM
But still, I assume in all your research you found NO mention of Gardasil causing mental retardation?????
CTPati September 28, 2011 at 10:04 PM
JM, is your concern really getting all of the FACTS out there, so parents make *informed* choices themselves? Or is your motivation to score political points against conservative Republicans? It seems to me like your motivation is the latter.
JM September 28, 2011 at 10:56 PM
Honestly, I think it's fair that you thought so, but this really isn't anything to do with political party. It's a feeling of outrage, period, against anyone with access to a podium who would use blatant lies and fear mongering in an attempt to manipulate people. If I wanted to score cheap points against conservative Republicans, I suppose my "angle" would've been something more along the lines of how can Perry pass himself off as a conservative when he supported such a large scale example of governmental "intrusion." I'm a bit torn about mandating such a vaccine, but I respect that he appears to have been intervening on behalf of women's health.
CTPati September 29, 2011 at 03:59 AM
JM, two points: 1) I wonder if the reaction to Bachmann would have been so strong if she had not used the words "mental retardation" but instead something like "adverse mental and emotional side effects." Those and other bad reactions have been documented--also sadly recounted by a mother of a vaccinated daughter on another CT Patch (maybe Stamford?). 2) Gov. Perry, instead of putting the idea to the legislature for action, decided to unilaterally do an "executive order" to *mandate* something that a former lieutenant--who left to *lobby* for a drug company--asked for. In my view his friendship with the lobbyist superseded the principled judgment he should have exercised, considering *parental rights,* the fact that the vaccine was relatively untested on young girls and other factors--including the fact that nearly all women get HPV, which goes away without causing cancer. Did you also realize that the vaccine requires 3 separate injections, at a cost of about $400, and that the effects *only last* 4 or 5 yrs.?

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